Idea of India

The Indian state after 1947 was left in control of a population of incomparable differences – Hindu castes and outcastes, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Buddhists, Tribes, speakers of more than a dozen languages, thousands of dialects and myriad ethnic and cultural communities.

Where did the commonality lie? There was no common identity, unity, ideology or symbol or an emperor to rally around.

For a few decades after independence, Nehru’s conception of a tolerable, common Indianness seemed to suggest a basis for itself. It was a political conception and to sustain itself, it had to constantly persuade.Today, with Ayodhya and other related incidents, this has given way to a more exclusivist ideas of India and political community. Definitions of India were again fiercely contested by Hindu nationalists trying to create a homogenous, exclusive and Hindu states and others fighting to escape the state altogether, creating their own smaller, homogenous and equally exclusive communities.

Rise of Indian nationalism:

Indian nationalism arose in parallel and oblique currents in the late nineteenth century. It began before Nehru and before the Congress, imaginatively described in places like Maharashtra and Bengal (places exposed to the British longer) In these places, the sense of regional identity came only while defining the larger Indian community. Nationalism is therefore not only about uniting and subordinating regional identities, the sense of region and nations emerged parallelly. The way different identities were explored was neither uniform nor consistent.

We cant reduce all the projects – anti colonialism, patriotism, nationalism – happening at this time to nationalism alone. However, one intention running across all the projects was to rebut humiliation inflicted by colonial views. John Strachey declared that there never was an India nor any country of India, possessing any sort of unity – physical, political, social, religious, no nation, no people of India we hear so much about.

Three responses to this emerged:

  • Nationalist Hindus said that we can find Indian unity out of common culture derived from religion

  • Gandhi settled on religion as a source of interconnectedness among Indians but came out with his own eclectic and pluralistic morality born out of different religious traditions

  • Nehru turned away from religion and based unity on a historical past of cultural mixing and a future project of common development

How was India before?

Before the 19th century, no resident of the continent would have identified themselves as an Indian. Inhabitants of a space called ‘India’ have been of interest only to outsiders – greeks, travellers, traders, invaders and the British. It was British interest which converted India from the name of a cultural territory to one with precise geographical boundaries. But they scorned at the idea of India having ‘natural’ frontiers.Thus colonial administrative techniques brought about a unified and bounded space called India.

India is however not just pure invention. There does exist a civilisational bond – epics, myths, folk stories etc, connecting us from Persia to Indonesia. The caste system is uniformly seen, imposing itself on all new comers, excluding the British. This bestowed a certain unified coherence on the lives in the subcontinent.There was also a sort of political community which existed. Pilgrimage points, epics and sub continental empires led to the creation of this. If India was weakly united, it was also weakly divided. No politically significant religious identities were formed to either obstruct unification or direct it. So basically, moments of unification were achieved only under imperial rule.


Rewriting history:

There were attempts at summoning up common historical pasts. James Mill wrote A History of British India, an outsiders view of how India will benefit from subjugation to the British. The colonial subjects began to question this and a need was identified to write our own histories. However this ended up dividing nationalism. Three periods were identified – Hindu, Muslim and British. The starting point was in the classical Vedic period, followed by the ‘dark’ Muslim period which left us vulnerable to attack. Hindu resistance was seen as brave but floundering. They couldn’t depict Hinduism as a unifying force so it was tailored to emphasise broad cultural commonalities rather than ritual practices, caste exclusivities and particular gods as this could exclude people.


Savarkar came out with this concept in his search for a seamless Hindu past. Using the genealogical equation of hindu = Indian, he said that members were united by geographical origin, racial connection and a shared culture based on sanskritic language and common rules and laws. These formed the core majority community. Others – muslims, tribes and Christians were relegated to secondary positions. These ideals can be seen in the modern definition of Indianness as well. Hindutva has moulded India’s political history throughout the years and was an important part in the agitation for Pakistan. Direct action by Hindu organisations and the influence of hindu nationalism in the congress, led Jinnah to question democracy as proposed by the congress as not adequately representing the interests of Muslims in Muslim minority states. His fear was of a large state with an undivided electorate and one religious community holding a numerical and potentially permanent political majority. These fears have surfaced now as well.


He refused to separate religion from politics, trying to refute the charge that religion must keep India divided. He also recoiled from the vision of nationalist Hindus. He inverted their image of a khaki shod fatherland and invoked an older anguage of feminised patriotism, making himself a demonstration of the message that strength was with the victims of history.He rejected the idea of using history as a source to determine future action. He wanted to abandon the imitative history of religious nationalists. He preferred the legends and stories of popular religious traditions. SO in place of an Indian unity with a common historical bond, he substituted a religious morality with elements of folk and Bhakti traditions as well as Christian morality. He tried to create a larger Indian identity by appealing to pre-existing local beliefs and identities through the idea of swadeshi – respect for the everyday material world inhabited by most in the subcontinent.Gandhian Vision receded in the 1940s, with partition and his assassination. His idea of anarcho-communitarianism (pluralist defn of India as well as his faith in the everyday tolerances of ordinary people) was helpless in the face of communal mayhem which threatened India.


Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s intervention in the political discourse of modern India was an attempt to answer the following questions: Is India a Hindu nation? If it is not, then what are the ways in which Hinduism could be equipped to live with other faiths? Can Hinduism cope with the ever growing pressures exerted by democracy, liberal institutions and modern technology?Ambedkar was a modernist who was deeply influenced by Western ideas of personal freedom and equality. He believed that Dalits had no place within Hinduism. The very foundation of Hinduism rested on caste, a system which he evocatively formulated as one constituting an “ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt.” This was graded inequality. Emancipation therefore lay in a total rejection of Hinduism. Because of these beliefs, he remained torn between the imperatives of giving Dalits an identity and a voice independent of Hinduism on the one hand, and his fidelity to the fundamental principles of constitutionalism and citizenship.Ambedkar’s held allegiance to the idea of India as one nation often came into conflict with the place of Dalits within this nation at a practical level. As a legal idealist, Ambedkar believed that the formal devices enshrined in the Indian Constitution and strict adherence to them would take care of primordial identities and resolve all latent conflicts.


Nehru managed to persuade the country that his was the only possible definition of Indianness. He came up with a compelling and imaginative story of the Indian past told as a tale of cultural mixing and fusion, a civilisational tendency towards unification which would realise itself within the framework of the modern nation state. He was influenced by Gandhi and Tagore, however, seeing the nation state as neither one emerging out of community and common citizenship nor one of shared cultural and ethnic origin. He sees India emerging only within the territorial and institutional framework of the state.

His model committed to protecting cultural and religious difference rather than imposing a uniform India. He discovered India using history – defining his sense of political possibility and made him vigilant about the future also spurred by his insight into Indian culture. To Indians, the past was as valuable as language/religion, valuing it themselves and seeing the world through it. He introduces the language of accommodation and acceptance. India appears as a space of ceaseless cultural mixing, its history like a document on which layers after layers had been added and inscribed, yet with no succeeding layer hiding or erasing that which had previously been written. He was not trying to chronicle fact but producing ‘living history’ an enabling fiction that bound a variety of pasts of immeasurable successions of human beings into one shared history of a single political community.

However, we also needed to coexist with a modernist, self critical way of looking at our past which acknowledged its immense failures as well. He saw India as neither a society of liberal individuals nor exclusive communities but of interconnected difference. This guided his practice post 1947. Besides using the institutions of the army and civil services, he added that of economic planning as well, to impart cohesion drawing Indians into a shared project of development. Not attempt was made to impose a single uniform identity upon the new nation. (example, language)This brings out an important part of the way Indianness has been defined. It recognised atleast two other aspects – citizens as members of linguistic and cultural communities. He saw no need for internal partition into States. But to make governance easy, states were created on the basis of language. This was not for any other reason but for administrative efficiency. This showed that indianness can be revised and wasn’t static.He opted to tackle the threats of religious identity formation through democracy – universal suffrage and a single electorate not divided into communities. The focus was on winning the trust of the people. Protections were instituted for the oppressed and minorities. These were however subject to change.

Also important was to establish indianness as an international identity – a way of being in the wider world. To become a world player, the country would have to create its own opportunities and chances, which it did by speaking the language of morality and justice. Nehru created an image that was not a martyr of colonialism but a self confident actor in international politics.Nehru’s conception of India did not monopolise or simplify the definition – India, an ungainly, inelegant combination of differences, still exists as a single political unit even after sixty years. This would have been impossible without Nehru.


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